One of the things that I’ve been seeing in some schools is they are saying enough is enough. We need to prioritize our students knowing what their value is in the world.
Heather Malin, director of research, Stanford University Center on Adolescence
Oddly enough, the interview alone — 45 minutes of penetrating questions about personal motivation, direction and desire to make a difference — can itself help foster some aspects of purpose, at least according to one 2011 study. Psychologist Matthew Bundick, now at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, conducted the interview with 38 college students and found that nine months later they had a greater sense of purpose than students in control group. That finding suggests that merely giving adolescents the opportunity to explore and discuss ideas about their own trajectory through life can be beneficial.
This is where programs like the QUESTion Project come in. They provide that opportunity. Bronk, meanwhile, has created online tools for teens to explore their purpose.
There’s no question that the study of purpose remains rather fuzzy.
“It’s an emerging field,” says psychologist Heather Malin, director of research at Stanford’s Center on Adolescence. Both Malin and Bronk are developing new survey tools for measuring purpose – tools that are needed for bigger, more rigorous studies. Malin is also writing a book on the subject that takes a close look at six purpose-oriented programs already in high schools around the country (including the ones mentioned above).
There’s some consensus, she says, about what is needed: “It starts with giving kids the space and time to reflect on their values, and from there, thinking about their future direction, the idea of purpose and then having opportunities to act on it.” However, Malin notes, “these programs are struggling to come up with research and measures to show that they work.”
And yet, despite the lack of outcome data, the programs seem to be striking a chord. “One of the things that I’ve been seeing in some schools,” Malin says, “is they are saying enough is enough. We need to prioritize our students knowing what their value is in the world. I’ve been hearing the word ‘humanity’ over and over again. People have hit the limit with the rigidity and rigor.”
That has a lot to do with why Gerard Senehi, a former middle school teacher, created the QUESTion Project. He, too, talks about giving students “outlets for their humanity,” not only in response to the rigid curriculum in so many American schools, but in response to social norms that are in flux.
“In the past we had more of a script for who to be and how to be. The lack of script is a very good thing but it also makes it very hard if students don’t have support,” Senehi says. “This is part of the depression problem [among teens]. If you don’t have a script or you don’t have a place to define it for yourself, you are like a ship without an anchor.”
Jamila Blades, who has taught the class at Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics for three years, says she has seen students emerge with more confidence and courage to try new things, more respect for one another and perhaps even a less rote and lockstep view of their path through life. It’s one class where freshmen and seniors listen intently to one another and where, unlike other courses, there are no wrong answers.
Last Updated on February 26, 2020
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